Path-breaking sustainability projects require the dedication of visionary individuals to make them happen. For this interview, we take you to one of our favourite cities, Sydney. Meet Ross Lardner, manager of Sydney Harbour YHA in the capital of New South Wales, Australia.
- How YHA’s commitment to sustainability has increased over the years to become a key element of the organization’s strategic plan;
- How YHA Australia determines and monitors the sustainability performance of its hostels;
- Which are the most effective sustainability features in a hotel;
- The main sustainability challenges for Sydney Harbour YHA.
Ross, when and why did you get engaged with sustainability at YHA?
YHA’s sustainability commitment was one of the drawcards for working for this organisation. When I started with them 14 years ago, I would say there was a commitment but not much focus on sustainability. Over the last 6 years especially this has changed where sustainability is now a key element of the organisation strategic plan.
My personal involvement with sustainability started early on, with involvement in social and environmentally sustainable projects at the Blue Mountains YHA, such as greywater recycling and one of 11 Hostelling International Learning Centres for Peace.
When the Sydney Harbour YHA development was being planned, I wanted to be involved when I found out that it was going to be an environmentally sustainable hostel as well as built upon archaeological remnants of colonial Sydney. It seemed like such a fascinating project with real potential to set a new benchmark for budget accommodation in Australia and worldwide.
How has sustainability become so important for YHA hostels?
YHA has had an environmental policy for almost two decades and we have worked closely with government and community groups to help raise the environmental sustainability of our properties. However, in the past six years, the organisation has adopted a more strategic approach.
This has come about mainly as a result of our involvement in the NSW [New South Wales, of which Sydney is the state capital] Sustainability Advantage program, by the gradual merging of the different state organisations into a single entity (a process still underway) and also the development of the Sustainable Hostel fund generated by guest donations at the time of booking accommodation on our website and matched dollar for dollar by YHA.
We now have better data collection, auditing of the carbon footprints of hostels and a greater ability to fund projects that reduce energy and water consumption and to monitor the impact of these projects.
Sustainability has been a key feature of many of our newer properties, particularly Apollo Bay Eco Beach YHA, Halls Gap YHA, Sydney Harbour YHA and Brisbane City YHA. The Sustainable Hostel Fund has helped install solar hot water at Byron Bay YHA and Adelaide Central YHA, and photovoltaic systems at Alice Springs YHA and Perth City YHA. In the next few years, we are planning on installing solar hot water at properties in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Which are the main sustainability challenges at Sydney Harbour YHA?
I would say one of the main challenges we have faced is bringing all the guests along with us on the sustainability journey. The most effective sustainability features are those that operate without any co-operation from the guests, such as rainwater tanks and solar panels. However, features that require guest involvement can cause a challenge to not only explain the way they work to guests but to actually get guests to use it correctly.
One example is the air-conditioning in our rooms which is designed to only operate if the windows are closed, a key-card is inserted in the power saving device and the air-conditioning is activated at reception. These three steps were designed to not have empty rooms heated or cooled and to reduce the chance of rooms being over-heated or cooled.
However, as it is not the normal situation you encounter in a hotel or hostel, many guests are confused despite the information we provide. Thankfully we also get a lot who applaud our efforts.
When designing the property, we wanted to build it to a 5 green star standard, but at the time there was no green star rating for tourism accommodation. Therefore, we had to engage a sustainability consultant to provide an assessment of our design based upon an adapted version of an office green star scheme.
Similarly, environmental certification has proved a challenge as the costs of the schemes have been either prohibitive, or they are designed for hotels with assessments based upon rooms rather than occupancy (so we are penalised by having more people in rooms than an average hotel), or the schemes are not really designed to assess the sustainability of an urban property, being more targeted to nature-based tourism.
Recently, we have started using EarthCheck Assessed, which has confirmed we operate more efficiently than the best practice benchmark for energy and water consumption.
It has been a marketing challenge to promote the hostel as environmentally sustainable, mainly because there are so many other unique selling points about the property that the sustainability message tends to get lost!
For example, our panoramic views of Sydney’s icons, the only budget accommodation in The Rocks, located on a significant colonial heritage site, etc., tend to be the messages that stick with people. Nevertheless, we provide the information for guests to access on our website and in the hostel and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
What needs to change to encourage sustainability in travel and tourism?
Unfortunately, promoting sustainability because it is the right thing to do isn’t a great way to convince most people to adopt it. I think the focus has to be on the benefits to business of sustainable practices, whether it be lower running costs, more engaged employees, happier customers, etc.
I found at YHA it was easy to get the go-ahead for projects that involved little capital investment, but harder once we had to put our money where our mouth is. With unpredictable future energy costs, it is quite a challenge to forecast the return on investment for energy-saving measures and more support in this area for business would be welcomed.
I also feel the politics of climate change have hi-jacked the sustainability agenda when it could just as easily been promoted as increasing efficiency (which is much harder to argue against). I hope that sustainable practices will one day be seen as the normal way to conduct business rather than as yet another challenge for businesses to overcome.
Finally, would you consider the city of Sydney a leader in sustainability?
Having lived in Sydney for most of my life, I have witnessed the “greening” of the city over the last couple of decades. This is largely attributable to the efforts of the City of Sydney and the current Lord Mayor. By no means have we won the battle, but significant positive steps have been taken.
Inherently cities are not very sustainable, but small gains in energy and water efficiency in a city can actually have a much greater impact than similar projects in rural areas. I think this is an area that Sydney has been chipping away at quite effectively, whether it be LED street lighting, cycle paths or solar power for city buildings.
However, the dominance of the car is still something Sydney is battling with.
Thank you, Ross.
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